Creating Blue Ribbon Parks

March 23, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — One goal of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Parks and Recreation is to increase the department's funding to the level of five years ago — before the pools closed, the softball and baseball leagues shut down, and the grass grew way too tall.

Another is to raise the quality of life in the city to a level that would entice businesses to come here.

"Grass not getting cut and bathrooms not being open are a concern to all of us," said 2nd Ward Commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, who chaired the commission that was comprised of city representatives, residents and a few business owners.

"Talking is important. But now it's time to make some of these things happen," she added.

"You're right. Nobody wants to sit on a committee and see nothing happen," said 1st Ward Commissioner Roy Schmidt.

Bliss said she was hoping to act on some of the commission's recommendations within the next 60 days, in time to map out the upcoming fiscal-year budget that goes into effect on July 1.

The Blue Ribbon report focuses on cost-cutting moves and revenue-generating strategies for the short and long terms. The short term is defined as within five years.

Some of the short-term cost-cutting recommendations were for the city to establish a programming partnership with churches and community organizations; give tax credits to individuals and businesses that fund park improvements; and encourage landscapers to make improvements to a park and then showcase their work through an annual event that could be called an "extreme makeover."

Long-term cost cutters included having the city form a regional parks authority with other cities and with the county to lower administrative costs; re-evaluate maintenance and service levels; get the unions to reduce their labor costs; and remove or close outdated facilities.

One short-term revenue generator was to consider an income or property tax increase, in which the resulting revenue would be used for park improvements and new programs.

"We did find communities who did this and they have gorgeous parks," said Mary Kay Kempker-VanDriel.

Other short-term revenue-raising suggestions would have the city solicit corporate sponsorships; rent park facilities for events; re-evaluate park fees; ask for donations that would be deductible on city tax returns; continue to seek grants; and create opportunities for companies to advertise at the parks, pools and ball fields.

"We're not thinking of a billboard in a field, but something with class," said Kempker-VanDriel.

The commission offered two recommendations to generate revenue for the long haul. One was for the city to create a parks foundation, preferably with an existing foundation. The other was for the city to sell, lease or transfer any underutilized land it owns.

"We don't want to do anything that won't bring people together," said Walt Gutowski Jr., who owns Swift Printing Co. with his father, Walt Gutowski Sr.

"This is another way for people to make this city their own," added Gutowski.

Kempker-VanDriel and Gutowski, who is reportedly running for the commission seat Schmidt is vacating, were joined on the blue ribbon panel by real estate developer Michael De Vries, longtime Planning Commissioner Patrick Miles Sr., past City Commissioner Mary Alice Williams, Downtown Alliance Executive Director Sharon Evoy, City Commissioners Elias Lumpkins and James Jendrasiak, and seven other residents.

"The easy part, I think, has been accomplished," said Jendrasiak of the panel's report. "Now comes the hard part. The time for action is now."    

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